Friday, January 31, 2014

Handling Conflict Better So the Focus Can Be on Mission is HNMCP’s Mission

By Murray Kampf, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

This fall, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) partnered with the Harvard Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Program (HNMCP) to assess its current dispute resolution systems and identify opportunities for improvement.  Dispute systems assessment and design are the core of HNMCP pedagogy, and this project is representative of HNCMP’s focus.

The CDC approached HNMCP to request a systems assessment after management recognized how conflicts and disputes in the workplace were taking a heavy toll on individuals and distracting from the important public health work for which the CDC is known.  “In the 60 years since CDC was founded, our mission has evolved and the agency has grown to meet the complex challenge of safeguarding public health in the 21st century,” said Sherri Berger, CDC’s Chief Operating Officer. “CDC is committed to maintaining a positive work environment and a healthy organization, which includes making sure staff have the best tools and resources available to do their work. This assessment will help strengthen our efforts to prevent and resolve conflicts within our workforce.”

Students Sarah Paige ’15, Michelle Goldring ’15, and John Miller ’15 supervised by HNMCP Director Bob Bordone, were tasked with evaluating and ultimately strengthening the CDC conflict prevention and management infrastructure. “This will be the first agency-wide assessment of its kind,” said Shaunette Crawford, Executive Officer for the Office of the Chief Operating Officer, who initiated the project. “We hope this effort will help us meet and even anticipate needs within CDC as it continues to grow in response to public health needs in our nation and around the world.”

Candid feedback regarding the present conflict prevention and dispute resolution services within CDC, and recommendations for possible changes from employees, managers, and employee groups, was essential to the project’s success. The CDC substantially assisted HNMCP by encouraging its employees to speak with the students directly. It also set up a special email box to which employees could submit feedback.

“The Harvard Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Program works hard to bring real value to clients by helping them think through how they can build and improve internal dispute management systems that help them resolve conflicts more efficiently and that lead to a better workplace for all,” noted Bob in a CDC intranet article publicizing the project. “Our collaboration with CDC is a wonderful opportunity to give our students a chance to practice the cutting edge skills of stakeholder assessment and dispute systems design.”

HNMCP performed a dispute system evaluation for CDC sister organization, the National Institutes of Health. Recommendations from the project proved extremely valuable to that agency. “Our work with the HNMCP far exceeded our expectations,” said Dr. Howard Gadlin, director of the NIH Center for Cooperative Resolution. “First, [the students’] final report was thoroughly professional in both format and content. Second, it proved useful not only as a means of getting feedback from the NIH community, but also as a way of affirming our commitment to that community and reinforcing the trust people have in us. There is great value in opening one’s program to honest feedback and critique. Many of their suggestions have proven to be quite useful and their observations have moved us to critically re-examine several aspects of our practice. I’m glad the CDC will be working with them, too.” HNMCP was also engaged in a second project with the NIH this fall, an evaluation of a pilot peer dispute resolution system.

For its project with the CDC, Michelle, John and Sarah interviewed a range of stakeholders across the Office of Diversity Management and Equal Employment Opportunity—including the Alternative Dispute Resolution Program, the Workforce Relations Office, the unions, the Diversity Management Team, the Office of the General Counsel and the Employee Assistance Program. In addition the students conducted a confidential and anonymous survey across the CDC on present agency conflict and dispute resolution services, collecting over 1200 responses. Finally, the students collected and analyzed general statistics on complaints and grievances and evaluated sources of conflict, as well as the agency’s approach to preventing, managing and resolving conflict.

“We were excited to learn more about CDC, but especially to have the opportunity to talk to people in different positions around the organization,” Sarah said. “We hope that our project will help put the organization on a path to manage conflict more successfully and efficiently, and help everyone at the CDC have an even better experience in the workplace.”

In December 2013 Bordone and the student team delivered a written report and presented their findings and recommendations to Sherri Berger, Murray Kampf (former Assistant Regional Counsel with the Office of the General Counsel, who served as the immediate Client-Supervisor for the project), and representatives from stakeholders at the CDC office in Atlanta.